On Jack Kerouac's Maximalist Writing And Unfinished Works

Back when I was a teenager, I found myself drawn to the sprawling tape culture of Grateful Dead performances--an archive of staggering enormity to which Dick Latvala and David Lemieux have since brought a sense of indexical order. D.T. Max has used the term "maximalist" to describe the epic ambitions of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and The Pale King, and that's how I initially felt about the archive of the Dead--that it was seeking out a course that transcended the component parts of each preserved performance.

I've remained drawn to work with maximalist ambitions, and Jack Kerouac's artistic project--elaborated across his own epic archive--was clearly guided by such aspirations. I'd place Kerouac's archive beside not only the creative output of the Dead and Wallace, but alongside the discography of Sun Ra, Henry Darger's In The Realms of the Unreal and Dieter Roth's compendium of copybooks in terms of its audacious scope. Each of these archives operates at a scale that necessarily poses problems for those bent on analyzing or accounting for its immensity, or for its wealth of concerns.

In a sense, what I'm talking about here are artistic ambitions diametrically opposed to the economy of haiku or the compressed immediacy of the three-minute pop song. Kerouac's lifework was instead a protracted act of memorialization in which he sought overarching patterns in the immensity of human experience. Kerouac made this quest explicit in a number of ways, including the Proust-like saga of his life as recorded in the books of his Duluoz Legend and in his ceaseless journaling and letter writing.

Through those efforts, Kerouac channeled the nonfictional elements of his life into a literary project of bold and elaborate dimensions. During the dawning of the computer age, the expressive scope of his archive foreshadows the array of social computing platforms (ranging from Twitter to Instagram) that have transformed so many of us into committed public diarists of the humdrum. Perhaps, then, Kerouac continues to draw such a committed readership precisely because he challenges his audience to consider the overarching stakes animating the autobiography of their own lives.

Across his sprawling archive, Kerouac wrote as a diarist with the expectation of being read. Transparency, so it seems, was his ultimate goal. For that very reason, when John Sampas (the literary executor of the Kerouac estate) offered me the opportunity to edit The Haunted Life and Other Writings, I accepted without hesitation. Ultimately, John provided me with the chance to move a critical early piece of Kerouac's oeuvre into the public domain so that readers and scholars alike might more vividly experience the originating concerns of his lifework, and I considered that a chance worth taking.

Kerouac often found himself torn between the allure of movement, of a life experienced on the go, and an accompanying hunger to be anchored in something substantial and lasting. This duality--the simultaneous pull of roots and routes--is already evident in The Haunted Life, a novella length manuscript that the 22-year-old author lost under mysterious circumstances in 1944. That modest handwritten manuscript reappeared just as mysteriously at a Sotheby's auction in 2002, opening a telling window into the inaugurating momentum of Kerouac's literary universe. Set in Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts in the period just prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, The Haunted Life focuses on the fragile hopes and pronounced apprehensions of three young Lowellians trying to make sense of their troubled times.

Two of those characters, Garabed Tourian and Dick Sheffield, were based respectively on Kerouac's close teenage companions Sebastian Sampas and Billy Chandler, both of whom had perished in WWII by the time of the novella's completion. In Sampas and Chandler we reencounter two of Kerouac's earliest muses--muses whose affinities with figures such as Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg should be immediately obvious to readers of Kerouac's work. Kerouac cast himself as Peter Martin, a student at Boston College grappling to comprehend the lingering political divisiveness of the 1930s in a nation poised on the verge of war. Peter's uncertainties are complicated by the fact that his father, Joe Martin, has fallen under the polarizing sway of the bigoted radio personality, Father Charles Coughlin.

The Haunted Life was clearly written in order to memorialize the youthful hopefulness of Sampas and Chandler amidst those times. As such, it anchors much of what was still to come in Kerouac's vast corpus of writing: an extended cycle of memorialization produced by the sobering realization of life's transience. Moreover, coupled with the loss of Kerouac's brother, Gerard, when Kerouac was only four, the wartime loss of his friends sheds further light on his lifelong concern with male relationships. While many continue to see Kerouac's fixation on male bonding as a negative aspect of his art--an element that dovetails with what has been identified as the "boys club" aspect of much Beat writing--it seems just as plausible to suggest that Kerouac spent his life contending with male insecurities and a pervasive sense of loneliness as experienced by those who had survived the Second World War.

Taken alongside the planning documents, correspondence and short sketches I collected in The Haunted Life and Other Writings, the concerns of the novella compelled me to see the massive archive authored by Kerouac as inspired by these generational concerns. While Kerouac's work remains central to our understanding of the sociocultural changes embracing the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, his own fascination with documenting the course of his own life and the lives of so many he encountered seems indebted to these realizations regarding the tenuous bonds of wartime existence. In turn, that realization goes a long way toward explaining the construction of The Haunted Life and Other Writings--in which I not only reconstructed the history of Kerouac's lost manuscript as best as I could, but attempted to place it alongside other archival materials that might aid us in further understanding Kerouac's maximalist efforts as an American author.

Todd Tietchen teaches courses in Beat literature and postwar American fiction at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. His 2013 lecture series on Jack Kerouac's Lowell novels is archived at jackkerouac.com.